Ian McEwan departs somewhat from his typical style and subject matter in the story “Solid Geometry,” published in his first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites. As in the rest of the stories in the collection, the main character of the story has little regard for other human beings and seems inclined toward violence and unusual sexual desires; unlike the other stories in the collection, though, this one combines elements of history, the supernatural, and metafiction in ways that anticipate many of McEwan’s later novels.
The story begins with the unnamed narrator’s description of a penis that his great-grandfather purchased at an auction and preserved in formaldehyde. The narrator has this heirloom on his desk, and he reflects on it frequently as he spends his days reading and editing his great-grandfather’s copious diaries. The story alerts the reader in the opening pages to a potentially sinister ending when the narrator notes that he used to fantasize about leaving his wife when he had finished the editing project, “but now there is no need at all.”
Like many of the main characters and narrators in McEwan’s short stories, this first-person narrator has little human connection with or sympathy for the people in his life—in this case, his wife Maisie. When she describes her nightmares to him and begs him to stay awake with her, he responds “through a yawn” that he has to get up early and falls immediately back to sleep. In another episode, the narrator locks himself in the bathroom one evening to write in his own diary and prevents his wife from entering despite her urgent pleas for access. When he finally comes out of the bathroom, she hits him on the head with a shoe and locks herself in; when she, in turn, opens the door of the bathroom, he has been lying in wait with the shoe and returns the favor. As the narrator’s obsession with the diary becomes more intense throughout the story, his relationship with his wife becomes increasingly cold. The depiction of this relationship echoes a major theme that dominates the stories in First Love, Last Rites: the potential for violence lying beneath the surface of everyday sexual and social interactions.
As the narrator delves more deeply into his greatgrandfather’s diary, he ponders the disappearance of his great-grandfather’s friend, named only “M” in the diary. Eventually the narrator discovers that the disappearance of M coincides with a section of the diary he has previously neglected, since it consists mostly of discussions of geometrical principles. He decides to read these sections more carefully, and here McEwan inserts a long passage from the diary, written in his grandfather’s 19th-century diction. The passage describes his great-grandfather’s account of an international conference of mathematicians in which a Scottish mathematician claimed to have proved the existence of “plane without a surface.” After demonstrating the existence of this plane by folding a piece of paper in such a way that it disappears, this mathematician then contorts his body in the same proportions and directions and slowly causes his body to disappear entirely. The narrator gathers, from the following pages of the diary, that his great-grandfather accomplished this same astonishing feat by rediscovering the plane without a surface and causing his friend M to disappear.
These excerpts from the diary appear in two long sections, separated by an interlude in which Maisie, stung by the narrator’s lack of interest in her sexually, smashes the jar containing the formaldehyde penis. Upon fi nishing the section of the diary devoted to this geometrical miracle, the narrator uses his great-grandfather’s precise directions to reproduce the trick of the disappearing paper. Maisie enters his study as he completes the exercise, and the narrator immediately forms his plan to cause the disappearance of another “M.” He plies her with food and wine, and—in the final scene, which Maisie initially interprets as foreplay—begins to bend her into position. He describes the event with the admiring eyes of a mathematician contemplating a formula: “the positioning of her limbs expressed the breathtaking beauty, the nobility of the human form, and, as in the paper flower, there was a fascinating power in its symmetry.” He completes his trick, and at the end of the story his wife has become the final plane without a surface.
In a handful of its elements, the story echoes themes that dominate the collection in which it appears: the narrator’s indifference to the fate of those around him and his complete focus on his own self-interest and pleasure, the sudden outbursts of violence in otherwise seemingly benign people and situations, and the interest in the most grotesque and unusual forms of human sexuality and desire (such as the preserved penis, which becomes an object of horror when it has been removed from the formaldehyde: “grey, limp, and menacing, transformed from a treasured curiosity into a horrible obscenity”).
The story’s turn to the past, though, has parallels in no other story in this collection, which otherwise depicts people and situations in 1970s England. The use of history in this story, to be sure, seems purely functional: It removes the discovery of this fantastic disappearing process into the distant past, which discourages the reader from demanding much detail about the scientific nature of the plane without a surface. McEwan’s venture into the past in the story signals an interest in history that becomes dominant in his later fiction but remains undeveloped here. The same can be said for his use of the supernatural in the story. This theme plays a central role in later novels such as Black Dogs, but here it seems to offer an unusual variation on a typical plotline in his short fiction: the gradual deterioration of sexual desire and sexual relationships into violence. The narrator offers no speculation on where Maisie might disappear to, no reflections on the cosmological or theological implications of such an action. His interest in the disappearing trick is purely self-interested; once Maisie has disappeared, he has no further use for it.
In its depiction of the supernatural, and in the narrator’s search through the diaries of his great-grandfather for the secret of the plane without a surface, “Solid Geometry” contains elements of gothic fiction, with a modern twist. One final element of the story, though, aligns it more closely with the late 20th-century movement postmodernism. Many postmodern works contain metafictional elements, in which characters or the narrator call attention to the work of art as a work of art. This happens midway through the story, when Maisie accuses the narrator of talking as if they were in a fiction seminar: “Perhaps we are in a fiction seminar,” the narrator replies. The obvious connection between a fiction seminar and a work of fiction constitutes a warning to the reader not to swallow the reader’s supernatural elements too easily.
The story’s title helps illustrate its theme: The narrator views his world and the people in it as mathematics problems. From his perspective, the search for the fate of M in the diaries is no different from the trick of making his wife disappear: Both involve solving puzzles— and puzzles must be solved, regardless of the outcome for those around him. This narrator, like most narrators and main characters in McEwan’s fiction, lives to satisfy his own pleasure; the distinctive element of this story is that the narrator’s pleasure lies in the abstract pleasure of solving mysteries, rather than in the pleasures of violence or deviant sexuality.
McEwan, Ian. First Love, Last Rites. London: Cape; New York: Random House, 1975.
Malcolm, David. Understanding Ian McEwan. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Raban, Jonathan. “Exiles: New Fiction,” Encounter 44 (June 1975): 81.
Slay, Jack, Jr. Ian McEwan. New York: Twayne; London: Prentice Hall, 1996.